Chicago Department of Aviation
Chicago O'Hare International Airport has two play areas designed by the Chicago Children's Museum.
Airport planners have finally learned what all parents already knew: Give kids a place to run around, and you’ll have happier, calmer children on board planes, which can translate to happier passengers overall.
At least 30 of the nation’s major airports have (or will soon have) play areas, and some airlines have installed play spaces within their own terminals.
"It’s definitely on the rise,” said Debby McElroy, spokesperson for Airports Council International-North America. “When airports are developing their facilities, they recognize that families with children are spending more time at the airport, and they look at ways to make it a more enjoyable experience, whether it’s art displays, game rooms, DVD kiosks or play areas.”
San Francisco International Airport boasts three play spaces, two in the recently remodeled Terminal 2, featuring child-sized rocking chairs and unique art work that doubles as musical instruments.
Los Angeles International Airport is incorporating several play spaces in its new terminal to open, in phases, at the end of next year.
O’Hare International Airport has two play areas, designed by the Chicago Children’s Museum. One is a 2,200-square-foot space with a two-story air traffic control tower, a cockpit, and cargo hold, complete with luggage to load.
Seattle-Tacoma International Airport has a 1,400-square-foot play space with soft, aviation-themed equipment as well as a private room for nursing. Nearby Portland International Airport has two play areas.
“It’s a great way for kids to burn off energy before boarding a plane, and it’s also separation from the business traveler, for example, who wants a quiet place to sit with his laptop,” said Perry Cooper, Sea-Tac Airport’s media and public affairs manager.
Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst with Atmosphere Research Group, said catering to families makes good business sense.
“This is a marketing opportunity for airlines and airports to make customers for life,” he said. “If the flying experience from airport to flight to airport isn’t good, then not only will kids not want to take trips, when they grow up they won’t want to travel.”
In 2007, Southwest Airlines began installing family seating areas in their terminals at many airports, complete with low tables and stools, and programming for children on flat-screen TVs.
“We’ve found from our customers that those spaces are very helpful for kids to be able to read, relax, eat or just blow off steam before getting onto the airplane,” said Beth Harbin, senior director of communications for Southwest Airlines.
American Airlines has play areas in some of its Admiral Clubs, located in 22 of the nation’s airports. Not an Admiral Club member? Buy a $50 day pass, which covers one adult and up to three kids, for access to its play areas, showers, Wi-Fi, and free drinks and snacks.
Colleen Lanin, founder of TravelMamas.com, said while play areas can be hard to find, she’s thrilled more airports have families in mind.
“It’s great they are recognizing that families do travel with kids, and if our kids are able to get their energy out, it’s a better experience for everyone on the plane,” she said.
But if all else fails and you find yourself with squirming kids in tow and no play area in sight, do what Lanin does with her two small kids.
“Before we fly, I have them run around in our backyard or around a fountain at an airport and I pay them 10 cents for each lap,” she said. “It’s a fun way for them to earn a couple bucks to spend at the airport gift shop, and it burns some energy.”
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Colleen McBrinn, a freelance writer in Portland, Ore., strives to maintain an active lifestyle of outdoor sports and travel with two wee ones in tow.